Okay, get ready for a rant. A rant against common names. Common names are the handles most people use to describe plants and animals, like daisy or robin. Scientists prefer to use Latin names like Bellis perennis and Turdus migratorius. I think you’ll understand why in a second.
But before I rant, I need to tell you a story.
A few weeks ago I wrote about strawberries. Strangely enough, then I wanted to eat strawberries. And not imported ones from California. I wanted local strawberries fresh off the bush that still had bugs on them. So I ended up at a U-pick farm outside Shawinigan, Quebec.
To my great disappointment, there were no strawberries to be found! They had all been picked the previous day by hungry customers. However, the owner told us (in French, bien sûr) that “les amélanches” were ready for picking, and urged us to try one from her basket. Cautiously, we popped one of the blue-purple berries in our mouths. We were not disappointed. Whatever these berries were, they tasted like sweet blueberries and had a great texture. Soon we were ripping them (carefully) off the 7-foot tall bushes. Some of the berries even ended up in our buckets. Compared to picking raspberries and strawberries, picking these was a breeze! But what the heck were they?
I turned to the internet for an answer. It turns out that “les amélanches” are Saskatoon berries. Before my berry-picking experience, I had never encountered raw Saskatoon berries. The most common uses are baked in pies and pastries, or made into jams and syrups. I can attest that Saskatoon berry syrup on pancakes is darn delicious. But the raw berries are even better!
As I shared my divine berry picking experience on Facebook, I discovered out that many other people had picked Saskatoon berries, but under a different name. It was hard to talk about the berries, because everyone called them something different! What was going on?
As it turns out, Saskatoon berries go by many different names. Serviceberry, sarvisberry, shadbush, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum and (my personal favorite) chuckley pear! Whew! That’s a lot of names to go on a passport! And kind of ridiculous if you ask me. Do I have to memorize all of these common names just to have an intelligent conversation about berry picking?
In Latin, the plant is called Amelanchier alnifolia. One name. Okay, a complicated name with lots of vowels, but still easier than memorizing 13 different common names. It was this problem of too many names that inspired Carl Linnaeus to give every organism a single universal name. And that’s just what he did. Now scientists all around the world can talk about Amelanchier alnifolia without being confused. It’s called the Latin name. Or scientific name. Or binomen. Okay, that’s a little ironic.
Where did all these names for Saskatoon berry come from, anyway? Well, they’re found from BC to Western Ontario and also in the Yukon. The different populations of people who lived in these areas probably ‘discovered’ them independently and named them different things.
Speaking of names, there is a city in Saskatchewan named Saskatoon. So Saskatoon berries were named after the city, right? Wrong! The city was actually named after the berry. Apparently there were oodles of bushes in that area. Yum yum yum! The name ‘Saskatoon’ is probably an English mangling of the Blackfoot or Cree name.
I wished I lived in a city named Strawberry. Or Raspberry, for that matter.
Okay, thus ends my rant against common names. They are great in most cases, but if you want to be precise, the scientific name is the way to go.
Want to learn more about the mysterious Saskatoon berry? More history, facts and revelations to come next week!